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How Zero-Waste, Reusable Packaging and Reducing Customer Effort Go Together

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Kindra Cooper
02/01/2019

reusable packaging

A coalition of major brands has agreed to pilot reusable containers for consumer products this coming spring in a bid to nudge customers towards using sustainable packaging.

More than two dozen brands including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Nestlé have signed on to the Loop initiative by New Jersey-based, innovative recycling company TerraCycle, which made a name for itself by turning hard-to-recycle waste items like juice boxes, cigarette filters and plastic gloves into new products.

If the initiative catches on, your experience of buying and using items like deodorant, ice cream and shampoo could be radically different in the near future.

First off, the items would be shipped to you in reusable, stainless steel containers. The first thing you’ll notice is the packaging looks and feels distinctly high-end - like you just shelled out $40 for a Hydro Flask water bottle - and your ice cream stays cold longer.

(Images courtesy of Loop)

Once you’ve finished using the item, you place the empty containers in a reusable tote bag developed by engineers at UPS, who designed the bag with repeat shipping in mind, and log onto Loop’s e-commerce website to arrange for a delivery driver to pick up the tote and bring it to a facility operated by TerraCycle. There, the empty containers will be cleaned, sterilized, and shipped back to the manufacturer to be refilled with product and sold to other customers.

If this sounds like uncharted territory, it’s not. Recall the milkman of the early 20th century who picked up empty milk bottles and replaced them with new ones before milk cartons bearing ‘Missing Persons’ alerts were invented - the premise is identical.

“While recycling is important, it is not going to solve waste at the root cause,” Tom Szaky, CEO and cofounder of Terracycle, told Fast Company.

Changing consumer habits is extremely difficult, unless it adds value or reduces effort. Despite the general perception that businesses are innately wasteful, brands have made innumerable bids to introduce sustainable packaging, like selling items in refillable containers and charging grocery store shoppers for plastic bags, but one thing gets in the way every time: customers don’t want it. Why? It’s more work for them. Or more money; ergo, more work.

For this reason, the Loop initiative is designed to be as seamless as possible for consumers, even though it’s less affordable and convenient in the short-term (you pay a small deposit for the containers, as well as the cost of shipping them to and from the facility).

“The goal isn’t as much to get you to change, it’s instead to create systems that don’t make you change - but have you solve the issue in the process,” Szaky said.

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Unlike when you recycle, the reusable packaging on items bought from Loop doesn’t need to be rinsed; you simply toss it into the tote bag as you’d throw a disposable item in the trash. Although the ensuing flurry of container-shipping does bear a carbon footprint, packaging designed for 100-plus reuse cycles is 50-75 percent better for the environment than conventional alternatives, TerraCycle claims.

The pilot will launch this spring in two markets: Ile-de-France, the region in north-central France surrounding Paris, and the New York region, which includes parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To start with, Loop will retail about 300 products on its e-commerce platform, with the hopes of expanding the new packaging into items sold at brick-and-mortar retailers.

Under this model, TerraCycle acts as a wholesaler that buys the items in bulk and resells them in reusable containers, which become the property of the brand, not the consumer. Loop will test the durability of the containers, the impacts on manufacturing operations - and, crucially, whether or not customers willfully opt in to the use-and-reuse lifestyle.

“We think that about 25 percent of consumers today are looking to buy brands that have a more sustainable footprint or clearly have a purpose that resonates with them from a broad environmental, sustainable point-of-view,” David Blanchard, Unilever’s chief R&D officer, said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the Loop initiative was announced.

“It’s also the fact that it’s a better premium experience for people,” added Virginie Helias, VP and chief sustainability officer at Procter & Gamble, referring to the fact that packaging can be designed to look better on shelves rather than the status quo of brands designing the cheapest packaging possible.

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